Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Officials Eye Campus Vote

Bishkek authorities seem to be preparing to grab vulnerable student voters in run-up to elections.
By Sultan Kanazarov

Recent efforts to get Kyrgyz students registered as temporary residents at their place of study are part of government plans to manipulate the student vote during upcoming elections, analysts warn.

Some officials say Bishkek state universities’ insistence that students from elsewhere in the country apply for temporary residence in the capital is merely a bureaucratic procedure.

Others say the new policy is meant to help ensure that students can use local polling stations to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for later this year.

But independent analysts point to the influence that has been exercised over students via state-employed teaching staff in past elections.

And they suggest the latest drive to get students registered is an effort to ensure that they are able to vote in Bishkek in upcoming elections, as in previous polls many have been unable to do so because they lacked temporary residence.

On December 4 last year, Kyrgyz law was tightened so that anyone who leaves their permanent home to stay elsewhere in the country must register as a temporary resident there within ten days, rather than the previously required 45 days.

Such throwbacks to the social control that existed during Soviet times have in the past been routinely ignored. But Bishkek’s state universities have recently appeared keen to make sure students begin complying with the regulations.

Within a few days of the change in the law, students at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University, KRSU, who hailed from outside the capital, were called to the dean’s office with their passports to register.

“There were registration forms, discharge forms, and electoral forms,” said one student, who wished to be identified only as Omurgul. “A laboratory assistant registered us.”

“We were not told why we were being registered, but I think it’s because of the elections,” added another student, Dastan.

Some universities had begun registering students months earlier.

“Students have been registered here since September this year,” said Nargiza Apsamatova, a student at the Kyrgyz National University. “We were told that this was because parliamentary and presidential elections are beginning soon.”

The new policy is apparently being strictly enforced. Apsamatova told IWPR that when her brother, a student at the Bishkek Technical University, failed to bring his passport with him to the capital so that he could register, he was banned from classes until he had fetched it from his home in Jalalabad, 600 kilometres away.

Some officials claim this is all a matter of procedure.

“Everyone must be registered according to their place of residence. Those are the rules,” said an interior ministry press spokesman Joldoshbek Buzurmankulov.

“There is a [new] simplified procedure for students,” explained Erkin Aratbaev, a senior official dealing with passport and visa matters at the Kyrgyz interior ministry. “When students enrol, the university takes on the responsibility for them to receive registration.”

Others, like Mariya Itibaeva, head of the passport desk in the Sverdlov region, acknowledge that the moves are linked to voting but maintain they are designed only to help the students cast their ballots.

“The last election to the Bishkek city council showed that many students could not vote. And these students appealed to the central electoral commission to solve the problem,” Itibaeva told IWPR. “We decided these students should be registered in Bishkek.”

“Our students are a politically aware section of our population, and they understand that registration is carried out so that they can express their opinion,” agreed Zamira Karabaeva, deputy dean of the international relations faculty at KRSU.

But some independent analysts suggest the moves are in fact far from a benign effort to get students involved in the elections.

Nurbek Ishekeev, programme coordinator of the Kyrgyzstan Youth Club, told IWPR that students can be vulnerable to outside influence at election times because teachers “advise” them to vote for a certain candidate.

In national universities, where teaching staff are employed by the state, this advice unsurprisingly tends to have a pro-government slant. And analysts told IWPR that the government has a history of making use of this influence to manipulate the student vote.

“The experience of holding elections shows that pro-presidential candidates always win in districts around universities in Jalalabad, Osh and Bishkek,” said parliamentary deputy Bektur Asanov. “Students here are very passive and their votes can be controlled.”

“Students have always been used to get votes,” confirmed Asiya Sasykbaeva, director of education NGO the Interbilim centre. “At the last elections, students at the Osh State University were openly forced to stand in line to cast their ballots. They say they were threatened with expulsion from university if they did not vote.”

And it is against this background that independent observers think the current moves to get students registered are intended to ensure that this government influence can be used to the full in the pending elections.

“We are forced to register… because the elections are coming soon, and they want to force us to vote for their candidates,” Tolkun Nurmanov, a student of the Kyrgyz State University of Construction and Architecture, told IWPR.

The fact that registration is not being required in independent and internationally run universities in the capital appears to support the theory.

“In those universities… such as the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas university and the American University-Central Asia, where children are educated by democratic principles,” said former education minister Ishengul Boljurova, “the influence and pressure of instructors on students is much less.”

Sultan Kanazarov and Irina Yugai are IWPR trainees in Bishkek.